To understand Jeff Wise's wacky (and facetious) idea for a memorial to singles on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., you must know where he's been. It's the same place so many 30-something professionals, including me, increasingly find themselves: singlesville. A place that can be equally fulfilling and lonesome, invigorating and demoralizing, exciting and frustrating. It is where hope lives and dies, sometimes in the span of a week, a month or years.
"Dating is an inherently silly occupation," says Wise, 35, founder of the American Dating Assn., a support group for singles he intended as a parody but which has been taken so seriously by his Internet audience that he wrote a new self-help book, "Universal Dating: Regulations and Bylaws" (Simon & Schuster).
Wise and I are sorting out why dating in America in 2001 feels more and more like a thankless job, an empty endeavor that men and women embrace and reject simultaneously and almost never get quite right.
"[Dating] is actually serious," adds Wise, of Los Feliz. "You're laying the groundwork for what will happen the rest of your life. There's a lot of pain in it, and there's a lot of joy. All of the drama of life is contained in this absurd activity. This is why we need an association and a national monument."
A polished granite pyramid to symbolize all of the hardships of singledom may make us smile, but it won't help the hapless state we find ourselves in. The trouble is, will anything? The Mars and Venus series has tried; "The Rules" gave it a shot. Hundreds of other books and videotapes also guarantee we will find and bond with Mr. or Miss Right.
In Los Angeles, especially, there are plenty of love coaches, matchmakers and seminars to go around, all promising to help us become more loving and lovable, but more often than not, to no avail. A sampling of those in the trenches shows there is plenty of angst but no easy answers. So just why is it that relating to the opposite sex is nearly impossible? Even seminars designed to address the problem can take a surprisingly vituperative turn.
To be sure, Wise's virtual association and the lime-green paperback that serves as its bible--"the official governing body of courtship in the United States"--were born from his own distress. He was living in New York with a woman he describes alternately as "dysfunctional" and "toxic," and it occurred to him that a rule book and support organization were in order.
"People need to have it in black and white," he says. "When you're in a relationship, you're so caught up in the hope that you lose sight of reality. So if you have this thing, which says in black and white, in Section 9, Paragraph 4, that you must end this relationship, a lot of your rationalization and justification would go out the window."
Section 9, Paragraph 4: Is this the love sonnet of the new millennium?
Everywhere I look, there are women searching for their soul mates: on the street, on television (Fox's Ally McBeal, HBO's Carrie Bradshaw), on the big screen and bookshelves (Bridget Jones in both). We are all in search of The One.
What I had failed to notice, or even consider, was that there is a batch of men just like us, just like Wise, who want to commit and dream of the house, picket fence, double income and fatherhood. But they have no idea where to begin.
"Everyone wants to connect, but then there's the fear of connecting, the avoidance and the anxiety over what's going to happen," said Alexander Avila, author of "Love Types: Discover Your Romantic Style and Find Your Soul Mate" (Avon, 1999), and psychologist who coaches men in the art of relating to women.
"As people become more educated, not only do they marry later and focus less on family, but they also feel they have more options," said Avila, of Temple City. "There really aren't as many as people think. As people get more secure career-wise, they raise their romantic expectations to unrealistic levels."
In other words, we're too picky, too dismissive, too quick to turn away a potential soul mate. There are more fish in the sea, we are quick to rationalize. "Never settle" seems to be the motto of my generation. And on the verge of my 33rd birthday, I am the first to declare I'd rather be alone than with the wrong man. So I am alone.
Or am I? There are an estimated 43 million single women in the United States today--and 35% of them are 25 to 55 years old, according to a Young and Rubicam study released last year. Single by choice is the name of this silent but spreading movement.
"I am single because I haven't found a man who is completely secure and kind," says employment lawyer Brenda Ching, 31, who lives in downtown L.A. "To say I've only met insecure men would be wrong. But I haven't had the complete combination. And, undeniably, there has to be chemistry and attraction. If it means being willing to marry later, we're willing to do it. We're financially independent and we have full lives."
But is there a price? wonders Sterling Schubert, an 11th-grade teacher at Schurr High School in Montebello, who is still waiting for Miss Right. "I don't want to settle," he says. "I'd rather be alone. But now that I'm turning 35, I think about that a lot. Do I really mean that? Do I really want to be alone? Once you know who you are, it's not that you're being picky or dismissive, but there has to be something fundamental about the person that fits with you. If you don't fit together at the core, you definitely won't fit together in the finer points."
That is where it gets complicated, says Renee Piane, owner of Loveworks, a dating and personal coaching company in Brentwood.
"Most people walk around with the fantasy of what they want, but it's not in line with their heart and soul," says Piane, who interviewed hundreds of singles over six years for a cable television show. "You have to look at the spirit of the other person, which makes you look at your own spirit. A lot of people don't want to do that. They don't want to go that deep."
Wise thinks we're all overconfident, and mistakenly believe we can intellectualize our emotions. "We think we have the tools for everything and can figure anything out," he says. "But the more intelligent and well-educated we are, the more befuddled we are. Back in the old days, you had a courtship and you got married and you had kids and you died. Now, we're so fussy. This relationship is not quite right, so we drop it and move on to the next one."
Add to the strain the changing roles between men and women, and it's a wonder anybody makes it to the altar these days, says Piane, who has never been married. "It's harder today because women are so much more independent, and the men don't know what their role is and they feel confused," she says. "The women of the world need to realize that we have shifted. We've become a more powerful and commanding presence, very much like men. I think both men and women need to send out vibrations of openness. People get so weary."
'What Men Really Want'
"You ladies have to flirt with men!" the petite Piane rises out of her chair and yells.
It's a Thursday night in Santa Monica, and Piane is sitting at the Doubletree Hotel among an audience of mostly women who are listening to a panel of men, ages 24 to 84, tell it like it is. The men are here to enlighten women on "What Men Really Want."
"Men are stimulated by your beauty," coaxes Piane. "But this is L.A., home to the most beautiful and unapproachable women in the world. Men get rejected and rejected and rejected. Be loving! Be friendly to everyone! Men will feel safe."
"I agree," replies 54-year-old Eric Board, a panelist who has never been married. "But make it obvious when you're flirting! We are stupid!"
The audience erupts in laughter, but Board is serious.
"Nobody wants to be rejected," elaborates Mathius Gertz, 46, a panelist who was single for five years between his two marriages. "Dating can become a huge mountain. You're always what-iffing. Do something that you enjoy and makes you excited and vibrant. And find a man who is doing the same thing."
The seminar, sponsored by the Learning Annex, is lighthearted in tone but not in its subject matter. The women in the room, ranging in age from 30 to 50, are discouraged by men. And moderator Michael Levine calls this "a tragedy."
"When women come to understand the true and sincere nature of men, they only have three choices: to deny it, to weep about it or to humanize it," says Levine, who owns a public relations firm in Los Angeles. "I know so many beautiful, charming, sensitive women who are frustrated by men. But maybe it's as simple as men and women having different primal needs. Maybe we're supposed to annoy each other so we can each grow."
According to Levine, a woman's primary need in a relationship is to feel protected and desired. Men, on the other hand, need to feel important and yearn to feel heroic. Several panelists agree. Their wives know how to treat them like heroes, and they love them for it.
"To me being treated like a hero sets up problems," says 34-year-old Jon Geiger, who is single. "It's the difference between living your life through somebody else instead of living your life with someone else."
The women applaud. They like this answer.
The next one is another story. When asked if staying faithful is problematic, all of the men say it is. Even 84-year-old attorney Eugene Trope, a widower who was married for 57 years and is clearly still in love with his wife, calls monogamy "a discipline." The difference between men who cheat and men who don't? "A developed and evolved value system," Geiger says. "It has nothing to do with getting caught."
The dialogue takes a nasty turn when one woman stands up and calls 34-year-old Darrin Reed a pig. Reed, who is single, had just joked about women treating men like "vibrators with wallets."
Other women boo and hiss and speak up in defense of Reed, who is laughing. "The age that I am, he's the reason I'm still single!" the outraged woman continues. "These are the guys who are out in the world."
Whoa! Jodi Martin, a divorced mother of two, gives the woman an emphatic two thumbs down. "That was hilarious," Martin, of Manhattan Beach, says later. "I felt like telling her she is the reason she doesn't have a relationship. She has no sense of humor." Martin came to the event to be entertained but admits she was hoping to hear something she didn't already know.
The men have unanimously delivered this message: Be definite. Have an opinion. Do not over-think everything. Men are not that evolved. Know what you want and communicate it.
Martin likes the way this sounds, but it's not realistic, she says. In her experience (and mine!) many men intellectually want a strong and equal partner but are not emotionally equipped to handle it. "If you're smart or independent and the man has nothing to rescue or take care of, he backs off. It doesn't matter how accomplished the guy is or how much money he has, they do get scared of you when you have your act together," she says.
Letting Men Off the Hook
Ching, who grew up in Orange County and is the social director for Young Generation Asia Professionals, finds this perplexing. "A woman now has to be a bizarre mixture of the nurturer and the independent person," she says. "We don't want someone to take care of us. We just want someone to be there for us and be supportive. What is the problem? Isn't that a good thing? Doesn't that let guys off the hook?"
It certainly does, says high school teacher Schubert. But his problem is he does not meet many women like Ching. The women he encounters are not strong in their convictions and do not have the confidence to communicate what they need and want. As a result, he is left guessing and resentful.
"I'd rather she give me some direction or tell me the end result of what she wants, and I'll figure out how to get there," he says. "I could interact at the emotional level of a woman, but it's so exhausting. What comes to women naturally is so difficult for men. I'm willing to read minds every once in a while, but I can't function at that level all of the time. The more assertive you are and the more outspoken you are, the . . . more I can focus on the intimacy of the relationship."
Avila, who has spent a lot of time researching romance and coaching singles on how to attract each other, doesn't blame intellect, education or even lack of communication for the great schism between the sexes. He thinks we live in an isolated society, and the main problem is that people do not know what they really want or what best suits them. His book, designed to determine what love types people are compatible with, offers a criterion that he says is more practical. "The key is to . . . extend your loving energy without trying to make anything work out. Wait for that natural harmony," Avila says.
According to Avila's love types, which are based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator--a widely used personality test developed in the 1940s--I'm a social philosopher. This means I won't ever turn down a good party, but I also devote a lot of time to relationships and discovering life's deeper meanings. Fair enough.
So, who is the man of my dreams? According to love types, it could be a growth teacher: Someone who is an excellent communicator, is emotionally supportive and is an effective leader. I can work with that! Not so fast, warns Avila. Ideally, I belong with another social philosopher. Not because men and women need to mirror each other perfectly, but because social philosophers are so rare that people in other categories have difficulty keeping up.
Avila explains: Only 5% of women are social philosophers, and only 2% of men fall into that category. Though many men are willing to party with me, and others can relate to my emotional quest for answers, few men can handle both.
OK, I'll take the growth teacher. About 7% of women are this love type, and 5% of men.
"Again, that's pretty rare," Avila says.
So there it is, in black and white. Just like Wise says it ought to be.
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For more information
* The American Dating Assn. can be reached online at http://www.americandating.org.
* Renee Piane at Loveworks can be reached online at http://www.loveworkscentral.com.
* Alexander Avila and his Love Types can be found at http://www.lovetype.com. Avila will be conducting a "Finding Your Soul Mate" seminar on June 21 from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at Santiago Canyon College, 8045 E. Chapman Ave., Orange. Cost is $39. Call (714) 480-7390.